Black leaders erupt over Barclays' sports deal

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The Independent Online

When Barclays agreed to pay more than $300m (£152m) to get its name on a new basketball stadium in Brooklyn, it thought it had pulled off one of the most exciting marketing coups in American sport.

But just a few weeks on, the British bank is battling to prevent a public relations disaster, as black leaders demand the deal be scrapped because of Barclays' historic support for the apartheid regime in South Africa and what they believe are profits it made from slavery.

Barclays says the allegations about its links to the 18th-century slave trade are "simply not true" - based on an inaccurate book written 60 years ago - and it is now mired in an exchange of historical documents with opponents.

Politicians, churchmen and newspaper columnists say it would be an insult to black residents to name the complex the Barclays Centre, as planned.

The basketball arena will be the new home for the New Jersey Nets, and forms the central part of a $4bn Frank Gehry-designed complex that includes 16 skyscrapers and will, according to its proponents, stimulate a renaissance in an underprivileged area of New York's outer borough.

Letitia James, a Brooklyn council member, said that accepting hundreds of millions of dollars from Barclays was like "eating the fruit of a poisonous tree". She said: "Brooklyn has been described as the 'black belt' of New York City, and because of their past practices, I do not believe it is appropriate that this deal goes ahead. We've no legal grounds to stop it, but we will be putting moral pressure on the shareholders and investors in the development project."

Barclays was forced to pull out of apartheid-era South Africa in 1986 after a long and bitter fight by equal rights campaigners around the world. It eventually calculated that the damage to its reputation was going to cost it more than selling out of what was then the country's second-largest bank.

Some opponents of the Nets development are demanding that the bank pays "reparations", saying it would be a gesture equivalent to its decision in South Africa to back Nelson Mandela's charitable foundation.

"All options should be on the table," the Brooklyn assembly member Hakeem Jeffries told the Brooklyn Paper, "including payment for past wrongs and termination of the agreement."

Barclays unveiled the naming rights to the development at a press conference two weeks ago, attended by the rapper Jay-Z, who is an investor in the Nets, and New York City's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg. The deal commits Barclays to fund community initiatives such as repairing street basketball facilities.

Bob Diamond, the bank's top US executive, said it was part of Barclays' push to get its name better known in the US. It doesn't run high street banks here, but offers financial services on Wall Street and has branched into investment funds for the public.

Ms James said opponents would reveal their research on Barclays' history at a press conference.

Peter Truell, a bank spokesman, said Barclays was sending its opponents documents showing that early Barclays family members fought against slavery.

He added the allegations appeared to have originated in a 1944 book, Capitalism and Slavery, which said the bank was founded by the Quaker slave traders Alexander and David Barclay. "Our research shows that Alexander Barclay was never a partner, employee or agent of the bank and the 'David Barclay' referred to in this book also had no connection with our bank," he said. "To the contrary, 'our' David Barclay formed a committee of London Quakers to oppose the slave trade, and later became involved with the committee in taking the Quaker anti-slave trade message nationwide within the United Kingdom."